Mary Beth Writes

(This is a fictional short story I wrote in 2001.  The photo is from Kathryn Rouse. Thanks.) 

           We'd been driving for hours. The unending trees of upper Michigan were a dark corridor around us, the sky above was unpolished silver. I was weary and my neck ached.

            "Mom?"

            I glanced at my son, just waking from a monotony-induced nap.

            "Yeah?"

            "Where are we?" He lifted his shoulders, easing the kinks from the awkward way he'd slept. "Are we close yet?"

            He tried to stretch out his legs, but at 18, he'd outgrown such luxury.

            "Less than an hour, I think."

            "Tell me again why we're going to this place. I know it's where you lived when you were little, but why drive so many hours out of our way to see it? You said no one you know still lives there."

            He was rubbing sleep from of his eyes. I smiled at how dear this moment was, how precious every moment with Sam had become in the past year. We almost lost him. You never think your own, strapping, goofy, immortal teenage son can become so ill, but he had. The year had been, bluntly, hell.

            But now he was better and the doctors were cheerfully optimistic that he was done with this disease forever.

            I'd cried when they told us that, then vowed I would make my way to the holiest spot I'd ever known.

            "This is a pilgrimage, Sam. We're going to see if a place I knew once is still there. I figured that as long as we were this far north, checking out colleges for you, I wanted to go the rest of the way."

            "But why?"

            I sighed.

            "It's a long story. I'm not sure how much you'd really understand what it meant to me this past year. It might be one more of my 'mom' stories."

            He grinned at me. His smile is everything. He is right here, in our life, driving my husband and I crazy with poor grades and wild dreams. But our boy is here.

            "Tell me the story. I'm so bored even a 'mom' story sounds good."

            I laughed. Laughing is such a lovely thing to be able to do, again.

            My eyes stayed on the road, but my mind swirled back in time.

 

…        

            I was nine that year and Ginny was 10. Not only were we the only two kids who lived on our rural, dirt and gravel, going-nowhere, dead-end road, we were also best friends. I had an older sister and brother but they were already in high school and therefore of no use to Ginny and me.

            We only had each other so that's how we played. Besides, Ginny always had such good ideas.

            "You be the movie star and I'll be the movie star's maid."

            "Okay, but where will we get movie star clothes?"

            "My mom will let us use some of her stuff. Just a sec, lemme ask."

            Ginny ran out of her pink-striped bedroom to lean over the upstairs railing. When Ginny yelled, her mom came over to the bottom of the stairs to negotiate what we could take from her closet for dress-up.

            "You can wear those old cocktail dresses. I can't imagine wearing them again. Any of my shoes are okay as long as you're careful. I guess the same with the jewelry and scarves."

            Ginny's mom, Mrs. Sebastian, was the most amazing person I knew.

            First of all, she wasn't plump like my mother and all my aunts. Mrs. Sebastian was as small and pretty as Audrey Hepburn in Life magazine.

            Her hair was wavy, brown, and so long she almost always wore it tied back in a ponytail. She wore Capri pants in warm weather or stretch pants in winter. All the other moms I knew wore housedresses.

            She listened to jazz while she cooked and cleaned. When she talked on the phone, she twisted the curly cord around her finger just the way my high school sister did.

            But most amazing of all, she didn't mind when we used her stuff or made messes. I was used to houses that belonged to moms and where kids were regarded as suspiciously as Goths and Visigoths -- marauders to be kept out of the order and glory of Rome.

            At Ginny's house, we were Roman citizens with full rights and privileges. It was so amazing to not get in trouble for moving furniture to make forts, or and hanging sheets over tables to make caves, or for traipsing around in old cocktail dresses and high-heeled shoes when you felt like playing Glamorous Movie Star with Imperious Maid.

            It was hours later and we were temporarily weary from so much imagining and flouncing. Ginny climbed on her mother's bed first so I climbed next to her to lean against the stack of pillows at the headboard.

            Even to a kid like me the room was beautiful. The walls were pale blue, the floor was polished wood, all the trim was shiny, unmarred white. The bedspread was a pale quilt and there was a wicker rocking chair in the corner. 

            White curtains framed a view of treetops stretching forever across the forest that surrounded their Upper Michigan house. Sitting on Mrs. Sebastian's bed was like being tucked into a clean and quiet aerie at the top of a piney world.

            Ginny threw her arms over her head. "Wanna play some more?'

            I ran my finger over the eyelet lace on a pillow sham.

            "Yeah, but let's one of us be a guy and then we can go on a fabulous date to a fancy restaurant. We can make the restaurant be your room."

            "Okay."

            "Can we use some of your dad's clothes?"

            "Yeah, probably. Though he's pretty tall."

            I slid off the bed and went to the closet on my side of the bed that matched Mrs. Sebastian's closet on the other side.

            Ginny sputtered "That's not his closet" just as I opened the door.

            In it were stacks of storage boxes.

            "My dad's closet is out on the landing."

            I was surprised. My dad's closet was next to my mom's in their room. Didn't all parents do it that way?
            "He keeps his stuff out there so he doesn't have to wake Mom up in the morning when he gets ready for work."

            "Doesn't he wake her up when he gets out of bed?"

            Ginny looked a little nervous.

            "He doesn't sleep here. This is my mom's room."

            "Where does your dad sleep?"

            "Downstairs. On the sofa in the living room. He's really tall so he likes to sleep on the extra-long sofa we have."

            "Oh."

            It didn't seem exactly right to me, but then, I was just a kid. How would I know what was normal for where parents should sleep in their own house?

            Ginny's grandfather had built their house decades before, when men like him were making fortunes selling the lumber that would build the Midwest.

            There was a garage dug right into the hill, then the two-story house was built over that. This made the house seem three stories tall as you came up the long driveway to the top of the hill.

            Half the first floor was a massive living room, one of its walls had a fireplace constructed of river stones. Another wall was bookshelves lined with books and curios. The two outside walls each had French doors that opened to a wrap-around porch. Each set of doors was flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows.

             Mrs. Sebastian had put glass shelves against the glass windows to hold her collection of colored glass vases and figurines. It looked, when you first walked into the room, as if she had a collection of rainbow chips.

            Of course, all that glass collected dust. Sometimes we helped Mrs. Sebastian dust and wash her glass knick-knacks.  Ginny didn't like to do this since to her it was just a household chore. But I loved it and wheedled her into it as often as I could.

            Carefully lifting, dusting, polishing, holding, and then carefully placing back down all those little pretties was, to me, exquisite. Kids usually had to deal in toys. What Mrs. Sebastian collected was a small, perfect, very safe world. I craved the moments when I could hold pieces of it in my little girl hands.

            There was also a trunk in the living room right behind the long leather sofa. Once, when Ginny was out of the room, I peeked in it and Mr. Sebastian's scent wafted out, scaring me a little. There were some pillows and a blanket that smelled of cigarettes and the bitter tang of liquor.

            I put the lid back down right away. The image of Mr. Sebastian's pillows with slept-on, un-crisp pillowcases lingered in my mind as powerfully and mysteriously as Mrs. Sebastian's little glass figurines.

It was an autumn Saturday morning. I was trudging up the driveway to Ginny's house when she ran to meet me.

            "Guess what? My mom and dad say it's okay if we make a log cabin in the backyard, so we can play Laura and Mary in the Big Woods!

            Ginny and I had been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder "Little House in the Big Woods." We thought everything about the story was perfect except the girls' names should be Ginny and Jane. We were almost like sisters and we definitely lived in a big woods.

            It's a lot of work for kids to drag branches and limbs out of a forest. After her dad did some other chores he helped us find and carry big enough branches. We stripped smaller twigs from the branches, then he helped us pile and interweave everything together to be half-walls for our very own play cabin.

            I noticed that day that Ginny and her dad always walked around a peculiar patch of ground. It was about the size of a ping-pong table and was outlined on the ground with river rocks. Most of the backyard was neatly mowed, but the inside of that section was scraggly with moss and weeds.

            It seemed odd that Ginny and her dad skirted around it even when it would have saved them steps to walk through it.  But I was a kid so I was used to rules and observances that made no particular sense, like why you have to change your socks every day or why you can't ask adults questions that make their mouths get tight.         

            I didn't ask about the plot of ground. Ginny's dad was fun, but his eyes sometimes looked at that ground in a way that was quiet. I saw that, so I walked around it, too.       

            We played in that pretend cabin for weeks. One day I decided we needed a stove. Ginny's dad had given us some scrap lumber, so I decided I'd find four legs, set a board on them, set four more legs with another board on top. That way we'd have both an oven and a stovetop.

            It was hard figuring out what eight objects, all about the same size, could be the legs for a pretend-stove.

            I glanced at the untended patch of ground. It was surrounded by dozens of similarly shaped river rocks. They'd be perfect.

            I ambled over, picked one up, started to cart it back to our cabin.

            "No, Janey, don't use those!!"

            Ginny's voice was almost panicked.

            I immediately set the rock back down in the exact spot from which I'd lifted it.

            "Why not? They're just the right size."

            Ginny looked scared.

            "'Cause my dad told me a long time ago to leave that place alone."

            "Why?"

            She jammed her hands in the pockets of her jacket.

            "We don't talk about it. My dad told me once and then told me not to say anything to mom because it makes her so sad. It's where my brother drowned."

            My mouth fell open.

            "You don't have a brother."

            "Not now, Silly. He's dead. But I guess I did once when I was a baby. He was really little, only two when I was born."

            I walked inside our cabin and sat down on a short log, turned on its side, that we used as our couch. Ginny sighed and sat next to me.

            She was quiet. The forest was so thick around us that you could only see the sky by looking straight up. Birds chirped in the woods; little animals rustled around. It felt like we were the only children in the world.

            "What was your brother's name?"

            "He was named after my dad so his name was Petey."

            "How did he drown? That place is just ground."

            She scuffed at the earth with the heel of her shoe.

            "I guess it was a little pool with flowers around the edge. The accident happened in the summer when my mom was outside working in the garden. Petey was outside, too, playing in a sandbox my dad had built for him. I guess I woke up from a nap and started crying. Mom could hear me, since my window was open, and it faces the backyard.

            "She thought Petey was okay playing in the sand. As long as it took her to go in the house and get me was all the time it took for Petey to go over by the pond and fall in."

            I noticed how cold the wind was when you sat still.             

            "Do you miss him?"

            She looked at me funny, her head tilted a little to the side.

            "Yeah, sometimes. It's funny because I never knew him. He died when I was only a couple months old. But sometimes I feel like I knew my brother once, and then I miss him."

            I picked at the bark of the log we were sitting on. "I have these little cousins. Cherry is two, and the baby is Riley. It's really cute how she pats his head and call him her baby. He smiles back at her and kicks his feet. I bet Petey was like that with you."

            "Yeah."

            "How come it's dirt now and not a pool?"

            Ginny sighed so big her shoulders moved.

            "My dad said that night after it happened he came out here and drained away the water out and shoveled it in with the dirt. No one's done anything to it since. It makes my mom too sad."

            Clouds covered the sun. The afternoon was growing as cold as ground.

            My grandmother had died the year before so I'd thought about death and funerals and cemeteries. I studied the patch of dead weeds.

            "I can see how your mom wouldn't want us to play in it, but still, it seems like it needs flowers like a cemetery has. My mom and aunts put lots of flowers on my grandma's grave."

            Ginny shrugged.

            "I don't know how to get flowers."

            "I do. My grandpa brought my mom a grocery sack of crocus bulbs from around his house, and I know my mom will never get around to planting them all. I could bring some here and we could plant them. They wouldn't come up till next spring."

            So that is what we did. A few days later when Mrs. Sebastian was on the phone talking to her sister in some other state, we quickly planted the bulbs.

            We didn't tell anyone right then, and the way secrets fade when you are busy, we forgot those bulbs in the rush of Halloween, then Thanksgiving and Christmas, winter, ice-skating, Girl Scouts, and homework.

            Spring comes late that far north. It was the middle of April when the snow finally melted, when some days would bloom with warmth and sunshine.

            I was at Ginny's house. It was a mild, breezy Saturday and we were digging dams and trenches into Ginny's muddy driveway. I remember how much fun it was to channel water from different ruts into one trench. When we'd get a good stream going, we'd race little sticks and pieces of bark, as if they were tiny boats.

            We were completely engrossed in our play.

            That's when we heard Mrs. Sebastian call to Ginny's dad. Her voice was shaky and urgent as if she'd seen a bear, which is possible that far north.

            "Pete?"

            He was in front of their garage, doing something under the hood of their car. He stood straight up at the fear in her choked voice, then tore off around the house.

            We could hear him calling, his own voice deep and scared.

            "What's wrong, Bonnie?"

            "Oh, Pete...'

            Ginny and I looked at each other, our eyes growing wide and our hearts pounding as we remembered what was in the backyard. We'd dared to change things inside the terrible place where Ginny's brother had drowned. We realized we'd done a very big and probably terrible thing.

            Without a word, we carried our shovels to the side of the driveway, then scrambled under two big pines that were positioned where we could see the backyard.

            Our breath caught in our throats.

            There, pushing up from the scruffy ground where her brother had died, there grew a perfect heart of bright green crocus spears. A few of the tiny plants already had flowers. We could see tiny spurts of yellow, purple, and white.

            Mrs. Sebastian was just standing there staring at the heart growing out of the cold ground. Her hands were over the bottom half of her face as if she had seen a ghost. She said nothing but we could see the shoulders of her red jacket moving.

            Mr. Sebastian's eyes moved to the green outline of the heart and his jaw clenched, his hands tightened into fists. Then his eyes moved to Mrs. Sebastian and we took a huge breath.

            He walked behind her and carefully, as if he were about to touch some exquisite piece of art, a fragile piece of glass, he reached out his hands.

            For a little moment his hands just hovered in the air, as if he was afraid to settle them on his wife.

            And then, he let his hands come to rest on her shoulders.

            She stilled. Her voice was muffled with the tears.

            "The girls must have done this."

            His voice was so careful.

            "Are you all right, Bonnie?"

            "I didn't think anything could be right again, after Petey died. All these years and I still never get through a day without thinking about him and that terrible day. But the girls put a heart there. Where I thought my love died, here is love blooming."

            She turned around then and looked up at Mr. Sebastian. They both had tears streaming down their cheeks but what he did was so simple that I have never forgotten it all my life.

            He unzipped his jacket, opened it, and she stepped into it. He wrapped his jacket and arms around her, bent his head over hers and just held her. They didn't say anything else.

            Ginny and I carefully inched out of the place under the trees and then ran to my house.

            My mom was working in the kitchen. She saw the scared looks on our faces and asked us what had happened. We told her.

            She listened carefully, nodded her head, then when we were done she told us to go play in my room. Later she came and told us that everything was okay between Ginny's parents. They weren't mad at us.  And would Ginny like to stay for a sleep-over?

            My mother was so amazingly wise and strong.

            The next time we played at Ginny's house, she told me, as if it were no big deal, that her dad was sleeping in her mom's room now. So if we ever needed to borrow any of his clothes for make-believe stuff it would all be in there.

            Something was right again, and even though we didn't know exactly how or why, we knew it started in the crocus heart that grew from the exact place where death had been. And that forever after, when you looked at that place, you'd have to think of both that awful story and this good story, at the same time.

 

            About a year after that, Mr. Sebastian got a new job with a company in California and they moved. Several years later my family moved, too. I haven't been back in decades.

…        

            "Isn't that the turn-off up there, Mom?"

            "Looks like it."

            "Um, Mom?"

            "Yes."

            "I guess I know why that story means something to you."

            "I guess you do, Sam."

            "I'm glad I lived."

            Tears started streaming down my cheeks but that's nothing new in my life. Often these past few months, crying was the only way to keep on breathing.

            I laughed through my tears.

            "Yeah, you are a treasure, Son."

            "But if I hadn't made it, you wouldn't have closed down and not lived your life, right?"

            "I don't know. But I would have tried to not do that."

            He chuckled. Only a teenage boy can chuckle at a time like that.

            "I'll do the same for you someday, okay?"

            I laughed outright. "You got it. Live real hard, Sam. Kiss all the pretty girls and some of the plain ones."

            "Does that mean I'm won't get grounded if I get a D in Physics?"

            "Don't push your luck..."

            I turned. The little lane I grew up on was still a rural, dirt and gravel, going-nowhere, dead-end road.

            My childhood house was off to the right. It was unpainted, listing to the side, empty. The economy in upper Michigan has not been easy.

            I kept the car going down the road to Ginny's house.

            It was in just as bad shape. Unpainted, abandoned up at the top of an overgrown driveway. I drove slowly through the dried weeds and deep ruts.  At the top of the hill, next to the sagging doors of the garage, I parked the car, I sat a moment to rest my hands on the steering wheel.

            "You okay, Mom?"     

            "Yeah. But give me a minute."

            He climbed out. Brisk spring air fanned against my face.     

            I climbed out, too, then stood to stretch in the shadow of a place so old it was more memory than wood and stone.

            I walked around the car, then pulled myself together to head for the backyard. Sam walked next to me.

            We rounded the corner.

            "Holy jumpin' Jehosaphat."

            "Oh my God..."

            Ginny's backyard was a Persian carpet of crocuses. A hundred feet in each direction, the floor of that hidden place was soft with crown gold, pure white, and royal purple.

            I stared hard, my heart swelling. Yes, there were the river rocks. No one had moved them in all these years. 

            Where love died, love bloomed.

 

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Thank's Mary Beth...

Beautiful!!!

Thank you You are a beautiful writer Happy Easter
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you so much. I really appreciate your comment. Happy Easter to you, too.

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